A bō is a staff or pole. The art of using a staff for self-defense (bōjutsu) is a major component of kobudō, and many other martial traditions because:
- Bōjutsu is a fundamental skill. The bō is one of the easiest weapons to learn. Bōjutsu skills will carry over to all other polearms, making the yari (spear), naginata (glave), and eku (oar) easier to learn.
- Bō are easily improvised.' Bōjutsu allows any long-handled tool (e.g., broom, shovels, etc.), or anything mounted on a pole (e.g., lamps, flagstaffs, etc.) to be used as a weapon in an emergency.
- The bō is a formidable weapon. A bō grants its wielder a tremendous reach advantage. Since a bō requires using both hands, the strike's reciprocal action is added to the strike itself, increasing its power. The bō takes on all of the impact, so its wielder can then strike harder without injuring their hands.
- The bō offers a variety of force options. The bō is a deadly weapon, but it can also be used to disarm, incapacitate, or merely beat up an opponent. This is why in Western martial traditions call the bō a quarterstaff, because it can be used to “give quarter,” an old-timey expression that means “to show mercy.” This a sharp contrast from other weapons, like knives, swords, or kama, which can only maim or kill. (“No quarter asked and none taken.”)
For these reasons, the bō has earned a reputation as “the king of weapons.” However, its far from perfect -- because its many advantages are also its many weaknesses:
- Bōjutsu is predictable. The bō is large and requires both hands, which makes it intrinsically telegraphing. For example, after swinging to the right, the next move must be a thrust or a swing to the left. Many of the standard defenses against staff-wielding attackers exploit this weakness to jam or trap the opponent’s staff.
- Bō are ineffective in confined spaces. The bō is cumbersome and requires large open spaces to be used effectively (e.g., parking lots, fields, the abandoned warehouse on Pier 54, etc.). However, in more confined places (e.g., hallways, apartments, aisles, etc.) you cannot swing the bō without hitting the walls, greatly reducing your available offensive and defensive options.
- 'Bō are ineffective at close ranges. The bō's power is greatest at the end of it's range. If you were to close the distance on a staff-wielding attacker, geometry will render their strike less powerful, and easier to block. Likewise, the bō quickly becomes a liability in the clinch.
- Kūsankū movements are impossible. Because the bō requires both hands to operate, a bō can be used for offense or defense, but it cannot attack and defend simultaneously. Most of the defenses against staff-wielding attackers are based on exploiting this weakness.
For more information on bōjutsu, please consult Fumio Demura's Karate Weapons of Self-Defense: The Complete Edition, or a used copy of his earlier book, Bo: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense. (Though this might seem like a cop-out, no one can do a decent job of teaching bōjutsu without blatantly plagiarizing that book in some way.)
We will not make an in-depth or rigorous study of bōjutsu; we will only explain how the bō is used within Goshin-Jutsu. Our weapons training serves as a supplement and teaching aid to our empty-hands training, and primarily consists of practicing the and analyzing the bunkai for the following kata:
Tips on Selecting a Bō
Many different styles of bō are commercially available, but the majority of them are junk.
A standard bō is 6’ (~183 cm) in length, and 1¼” (~3 cm) in diameter. Any staff or pole > 5’ (~152 cm) long can be used as a bō; shorter lengths are considered jō (sticks), which require different techniques to be effective weapons. To avoid breaking, the bō's diameter must be proportionate to its length, so only weild bō which are > 1” (~2.5 cm) in diameter.
There is no reason to pay more than $25 for a bō. Martial art suppliers make their living by catering to the tournament scene's vanity, and a bō which sells for > $25 is a surefire sign of flashy junk designed to impress judges, and not to crack heads. Likewise, the budget-minded karateka can just use the handle from a rake, shovel, etc. Cost does not imply quality.
We prefer to use bō with slightly-tapered ends, since they offer sharper thrusts and an improved moment of inertia. However, using a perfectly-straight bō is not “wrong” -- but using a competition bō is wrong. Many performers on the karate tournament scene use special lightweight staves which are easier to spin quickly, since they are more concerned with pleasing others with fancy twirls than they are with developing a rugged character or self-defense skills. These competition (or “toothpick”) bō are tapered over their entire length, from their 1” (~25 mm) center diameter to their ½” (~13 mm) diameter ends. Toothpick bō are too flimsy to be used in training or self-defense. To illustrate this point to one of our students, I once snuck up behind my colleague, Mr. Heath, and savagely beat him with a toothpick bō. Not only was Mr. Heath completely uninjured, he wasn’t even angry -- just confused.
A proper bō is made from a quality hardwood which is dense and tough enough to stop swords (e.g., oak, cherry, hickory). While many retailers sell bō made from lightweight materials (e.g., graphite, fiberglass, rattan), these are toys for baton twirlers. I once saw a lightweight toothpick bō shatter from reciprocal action alone, during the normal performance of a solo kata.
Likewise, a bō should be one, solid piece. Many competition bō come in sections and screw together like pool cues. Though these are much easier to transport, these screw-together staves will only screw you over in self-defense, because their connection loosens a little bit with every swing.